A picture is worth a thousand words. True or false?
True in the case of Ikea assembly instructions. How much more difficult would they be without illustrations?
False in the case of literature. How often have you been disappointed in the film of a favourite book?
When a word is spoken, it is a sound. When written, it becomes a picture.
A written word has shape. That shape is created by the ascenders, descenders, stems, finials, terminals and bowls of the individual letters.
Sometimes a word looks right in one typeface, but wrong in another. A ransom note in beautiful calligraphy is still a ransom note, but it somehow loses some of its menace.
As we learn to read, we become accustomed to the appearance of each word. We know what it looks like. We know what at looks like. If we see at where we expect to see it, we suspect a mistake.
That’s how we find most written mistakes. The shape of the wrod looks wrong.
That’s why we’re not good at proofreading our own text. Our minds see the word we intended, not the wrod we wrote. (Thank you Uli Barth for proofreading my book, The Fine Art of Losing Clients.)
Aoccdrnig to a rseearch sduty at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttare in waht oredr the ltteers, in a wrod are, the olny tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm.
Why is that? Because you’re not reading every letter. You’re seeing the word as a whole and your mind knows what words make sense in that sentence.
When you write, I can tell you’re American because your harbor looks different from my harbour.
Your American autocorrect software thinks I have misspelled misspelled when I write misspelt.
Not only is every word a picture, but it conjures other pictures. The word truck is a picture. If I ask you to picture a truck, what you see is influenced by what you have experienced. If you are from rural Pakistan, the truck you picture is likely a jingle truck, highly pimped with brightly coloured (or colored for American readers) timber coachwork, bells and folk art adornments. (I’ve included a picture of a jingle truck to save you the trouble of picturing one.)
If you work for an American transport company, you might picture a Mack B Double.
If I’m an African bushman, my idea of a big house has two rooms. If I’m a Hollywood producer, a big house has twenty.
Educationalists around the world attempt to rank kids on common scales of numeracy and literacy. Literacy tests are limited to evaluating spelling, sentence structure, grammar.
What they don’t test is creativity, the ability to combine words into sentences with the power to move. They don’t encourage the exploration of words.
There are awards around the world for writers. The best writers become celebrated. Nobody celebrates readers. And yet, all the best authors test the creativity of their readers. When you read, there might be a chasm between what the author wrote and what you comprehend – unless you’re reading on the same creative level as the one on which the author wrote.
On the evidence of Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce would fail a literacy test. On the evidence of A Clockwork Orange, so would Anthony Burgess. So too J. R. R. Tolkein, Roald Dahl, George Orwell, Vladimir Nabokov, Dylan Thomas and William Shakespeare.
If, as a reader, you’re not at your sharpest, you’ll miss many of the linguistic games used by some writers.
For Nabokov, Manhattan isn’t just a word that conjures images of a New York island. It is a word comprised of three smaller words, the first a gender, the second an article of clothing, the third the result of exposure to the sun.
Learning to read and write are two of the fundamentals of education. But if education stops at spelling and grammar and sentence structure, we’ll be denied so many pleasures waiting for us on the pages of books.
One teacher, Peter Cornish, challenged us students to create, invent and play with words. By setting essay topics like clay, umbrellas, nothing, a face in a crowd and widdershins, he was expecting us to become storytellers.
I credit him with igniting my love of writing, of painting pictures with words. Peter, wherever you are, thank you.
Photo by Nicole Honeywill via Unsplash